Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Shrinking snow depth on Arctic sea ice threatens ringed seal habitat

As sea ice in the Arctic continues to shrink during this century, more than two thirds of the area with sufficient snow cover for ringed seals to reproduce also will disappear, challenging their survival, scientists report in a new study.
The ringed seal, currently under consideration for threatened species listing, builds caves to rear its young in snow drifts on sea ice. Snow depths must be on average at least 20 centimeters, or 8 inches, to enable drifts deep enough to support the caves.

“It’s an absolute condition they need,” said Cecilia Bitz, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. She’s a co-author of the study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

But without sea ice, the platform that allows the snow to pile up disappears, ultimately reducing the area where the seals can raise their pups.

Bitz typically focuses on studying the area and thickness of sea ice. “But when a seal biologist telephoned and asked what our climate models predict for snow depth on the ice, I said, ‘I have no idea,’” she said. “We had never looked.”

That biologist was co-author Brendan Kelly of the National Science Foundation and he was curious about the snow depth trend because he was contributing to a governmental report in response to the petition to list the seals as threatened.

The researchers, including lead author and UW atmospheric sciences graduate student Paul Hezel, found that snowfall patterns will change during this century but the most important factor in determining snow depth on the ice will be the disappearance of the sea ice.

“The snowfall rate increases slightly in the middle of winter by the end of the century,” Hezel said. However, at the same time sea ice is expected to start forming later in the year than it does now. The slightly heavier snowfall in the winter won’t compensate for the fact that in the fall — which is also when it snows the heaviest — snow will drop into the ocean instead of piling up on the ice.

The researchers anticipate that the area of the Arctic that accumulates at least 20 centimeters of snow will decrease by almost 70 percent this century. With insufficient snow depth, caves won’t hold up.

Other climate changes threaten those caves, too. For instance, the snow will melt earlier in the year than it does now, so it’s possible the caves won’t last until the young seals are old enough to venture out on their own. In addition, more precipitation will fall as rain, which soaks into the snow and can cause caves to collapse.
The researchers found that in the decades to come sea ice will form later in the fall leading to a decrease in snow depth. This occurs in spite of an increase in snowfall rates through the winter.

The research is important for more than just the ringed seals. “There are many other reasons to study snow cover,” Hezel said. “It has a huge thermodynamic impact on the thickness of the ice.”

Snow on sea ice in fall and winter acts like a blanket that slows the release of heat from the relatively warm ocean into the atmosphere. That means deeper snow tempers sea ice growth.

In the spring, snow has a different impact on the ice. Since snow is more reflective than ice, it creates a cooling effect on the surface. “So the presence of snow helps sustain the icepack into spring time,” Hezel said.

To produce the study, the scientists examined 10 different climate models, looking at historic and future changes of things like sea ice area, precipitation, snowfall and snow depth on sea ice. The resulting prediction for declining snow depth on sea ice this century agreed across all of the models.

The new research comes too late to be cited in the report about ringed seals that was written by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in response to the petition to list the ringed seal as threatened. However, it confirms results that were based on a single model that Bitz provided for the report two years ago. NOAA expects to issue its final decision soon.

The UW scientists on this study were funded by the Office of Naval Research.

For more information, contact Hezel at or 206-321-5737 or Bitz at 206-543-1339,

Nancy Gohring | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Wandering greenhouse gas
16.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

nachricht Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System
14.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>